Diseases & Conditions


Pancreatic Cancer

Diseases & Conditions

What is pancreatic cancer?

The pancreas is an organ located between the stomach and backbone. It is surrounded by the liver, intestine, and other organs. The pancreas has two different kinds of glands:

  • Exocrine glands make pancreatic juices that contain enzymes to help break down food
  • Endocrine cells make insulin and other hormones

Both the exocrine and endocrine cells of the pancreas can form cancers but exocrine tumors are by far the most common type of pancreatic cancers.1 Not all tumors in the pancreas are cancer. Some tumors are benign but might cause cancer if they are left untreated.

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth common cause of cancer-related mortality across the world.2

What are the stages of pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is assigned a stage from I to IV in order of severity.4

Stage I

Cancer is confined to the pancreas

Stage II

Cancer has spread beyond the pancreas to nearby tissues and organs and may have spread to the lymph nodes.

Stage III

Cancer has spread beyond the pancreas to the major blood vessels around the pancreas and may have spread to the lymph nodes.

Stage IV

Cancer has spread to distant sites beyond the pancreas, such as the liver, lungs and the lining that surrounds the abdominal organs


What are the causes and risk factors of pancreatic cancer?

Scientists do not know exactly what causes most pancreatic cancers, but they have found several risk factors that can make a person more likely to get this disease:5

  • Smoking
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Work exposure to certain chemicals such as certain pesticides and dyes
  • Aging
  • Gender: Men are more likely to get this cancer than women.
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer
  • Gene changes: Certain changes in genes can lead to conditions running in some families that increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Stomach problems: Acidity in the stomach and inflammation caused by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori in the stomach
  • Diet: Eating too much meat might cause pancreatic cancer.
  • Lack of exercise: Not being active might also increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.

What are the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer often goes undetected until it is advanced and difficult to treat. The most common symptoms of pancreatic cancer are:6

  • Jaundice causing yellowing of the eyes and skin
  • Deep upper abdominal pain
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Pancreatitis
  • Dysglycemia: Pancreatic cancer causes problems with blood sugar and sometimes it can cause diabetes.
  • Blood clots in a vein of the leg

Can pancreatic cancer be prevented?

The cause of many pancreatic cancers is unknown, so there is no sure way to prevent it. However, there are some ways to reduce the risk of this disease.7

  • Quitting smoking. Smoking is the most important avoidable risk factor for because it is responsible for 20% to 30% of pancreatic cancer.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Choose a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables



How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?

A doctor may use one or more of the following tests to diagnose pancreatic cancer:8

  • Physical examination: An examination of the body to check signs and symptoms of the disease and overall health.
  • History: Family history with the disease and a history of the patient’s health habits and past diseases and treatments.
  • Laboratory tests: Blood tests to detect jaundice, tumor makers and other substances in the body.
  • Imaging procedures:
    • Computed tomography (CT) scan
    • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
    • Ultrasound
    • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
  • Biopsy to remove a small sample of pancreatic cells


How is pancreatic cancer treated?

Overall, there are four basic ways to treat pancreatic cancer:9

  • Surgery: It consists in the removal of a part or the whole pancreas, the gallbladder, part of the stomach, part of the small intestine, the spleen, and the bile duct depending on the spread of the cancer.
  • Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells by preventing them from dividing.
  • Radiation therapy is the use of X-ray radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors.
  • Chemoradiation therapy combines chemotherapy and radiation therapy to increase the effects of both.
  • Targeted therapy is the use of drugs or other substances to inhibit the growth of cancer cells by interfering with specific molecules involved in tumor progression.




  1. What is pancreatic cancer? (What is pancreatic cancer?). http://www.cancer.org/cancer/pancreaticcancer/overviewguide/pancreatic-cancer-overview-what-is-pancreatic-cancer
  2. Hariharan, D., A. Saied, and H. M. Kocher. "Analysis of mortality rates for pancreatic cancer across the world." HPB 10.1 (2008): 58-62.
  3. Rahal, Mohammed M., et al. "Saudi Oncology Society clinical management guideline series. Pancreatic cancer 2014." Saudi medical journal 35.12 (2014): 1534-1537.
  4. Pancreatic cancer (Tests and diagnosis).http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pancreatic-cancer/basics/tests-diagnosis/con-20028153
  5. What are the risk factors for pancreatic cancer? (What are the risk factors for pancreatic cancer?). http://www.cancer.org/cancer/pancreaticcancer/detailedguide/pancreatic-cancer-risk-factors
  6. Hidalgo, Manuel. "Pancreatic cancer." New England Journal of Medicine 362.17 (2010): 1605-1617.
  7. Can pancreatic cancer be prevented? (Can pancreatic cancer be prevented?). http://www.cancer.org/cancer/pancreaticcancer/detailedguide/pancreatic-cancer-prevention.
  8. Cancer Screening Overview (National Cancer Institute).http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/screening/patient-screening-overview-pdq
  9. "Special Section: Pancreatic Cancer." Cancer Facts & Figures 2013.Web. 22 Nov. 2015. <http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@research/documents/document/acspc-038828.pdf>.